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Spin Control: The White House Office of Communications and the Management of Presidential News.

John Anthony Maltese. North Carolina, $29.95. What do you suppose Ross Perot has in mind when he talks about holding town meetings via television if elected president? Who knows, since, as on most topics, Perot has yet to deliver specifics. But if he's talking about something that would reduce the power of--or, better still, eliminate--the White House Office of Communications, I'm for it.

The White House Office of Communications was created by Richard Nixon in 1969. And as John Anthony Maltese makes clear in this well-researched book, Nixon did not create it to communicate facts about his administration, but instead to marshal them. After all, Nixon's winning campaign for the presidency, which Joe McGinnis immortalized in The Selling of the President, 1968, elevated news management to a high art. Maltese reminds us how Nixon, in his television commercials, would stand amidst a group of citizens, fielding questions calmly and brilliantly. The "citizens" were, of course, a packed house of supporters. No tough, rude questions here. No one invoking embarrassments of campaigns past, shouting "What about the Hughes Tool Company loan?" or some such. Then there was Nixon's slick promise of a plan to end the war in Vietnam, which could not, of course, be disclosed in advance. Talk about buying a pig in a poke. But all this news management worked, and as president, Nixon wanted to institutionalize it. Hence the White House Office of Communications.

Now, you say, "Don't be naive. Presidents have to build public support for their policies in order to accomplish anything." That's true. But consider how support has been built in recent years. Maltese recounts how Dick Cheney, who was President Ford's chief of staff, told him that to be an effective president, he must control the agenda. That view illustrates precisely how modern White Houses have gone wrong. There is a big difference between putting forward your policies in a way you hope will convince people to support them and trying to "control the agenda." One is an attempt to compete effectively in the marketplace of ideas. The other is a strategy that aims to reduce or eliminate discussion of competing viewpoints.

And who's served when that happens? If you think it's the president, read this book. Read how the Bob Haldemans and Chuck Colsons isolated Nixon's longtime media adviser Herb Klein because Klein wanted to open doors for reporters. Read how Vice President Spiro Agnew, with the help of trusty speechwriter Pat Buchanan, tried to make the press an issue, calling it an "effete corps of impudent snobs." Read how it all failed.

And if you ever were inclined to point to the Reagan administration's managing of the agenda for the greater glorification of Ronald Reagan, I'm sure today, with Reagan's legacy crashing down everywhere, you will do your pointing discreetly.

It has often been said that the Reagan people were the best at news management. I say they were the worst. They kept the president isolated, and the more isolated he was, the less able and reassuring he was on those occasions when the curtain was parted. They spent lots of energy thinking up their "story of the day," but when emergencies intruded, such as the ill-considered trip to the Bitburg cemetery in Germany where SS graves festooned the landscape, they didn't know how to handle it. And when Iran-contra broke, the decision on how to communicate was made by a powerful first lady and a powerful chief of staff slamming the phone down on each other. (She didn't want a press conference; he did.) I suppose you can argue that distorting reality helped keep the Gipper popular in the short run. But in the end, the horror stories got out--avoiding any serious discussion of the deficit, for instance, didn't reduce it by a dime--and the reputation of the president and many of those who pulled the levers suffered.

President Bush has eliminated some of the worst news management practices of the Reagan years. I give him high marks for coming down to the press room frequently to field questions. Notwithstanding that, his people still try to blow too much smoke and adjust too many mirrors. My favorite moment in this regard was when, after a satellite question-and-answer period with supporters, an open microphone picked up Bush complaining to an aide that the people asking the "spontaneous" questions hadn't followed the agreed-upon order, thus throwing his cue card answers out of sequence. As Maltese's book explains, the Office of Communications is behind such charades.

A word here about Jimmy Carter, who, as in so many tasks, went in several directions: When he first came to office, Carter opted for a "no-frills, open, tell-it-like-it-is" presidency. He drove in an unmarked limousine, forbade the playing of "Hail to the Chief" when he entered a room, and restructured the Office of Communications out of existence. But when he ended up in trouble, Carter summoned his old media adviser Gerald Rafshoon and revived the dreaded machine. Rafshoon labored mightily but drew only buckets of criticism, not because he was particularly loathsome in his efforts (he wasn't), but because switching from telling it like it is to trying to manage the agenda only made the attempt to control the media more obvious. As Maltese notes, "Carter violated the old Nixon maxim that presidents must manipulate the media while avoiding at all costs the charge of manipulating the media."

My only regret about how Maltese puts forth the history of this pernicious White House office is his scholarly dryness. (Okay, so he is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Georgia.) There are some colorful moments, as when President-elect Nixon and his longtime secretary ride in an elevator together in strained silence after he's told her she won't have a desk near the Oval Office because he needs to solidify Bob Haldeman's "gatekeeper" power. Or when, in the Reagan White House, Larry Speakes, during a turf battle with David Gergen, publicly labels him "the tall man" in an attempt to make him an object of ridicule. But by and large there is no sex in this book, which I suppose I have to applaud in light of my thesis that presidents should play it straight when it comes to communication.

Let's face it. Franklin Roosevelt didn't have an Office of Communications. Neither did Harry Truman. They did all right. So if Ross Perot wants to "chew the fat" with the public directly, it might not be such a bad thing. After all, it couldn't be a less effective way of communicating with the public than the method presidents have been using since 1969.
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Author:Donaldson, Sam
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1992
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